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3 Temptations that Undermine Your Fundraising Storytelling, and How to Stop Them Cold

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You already know this: Fundraising is built on storytelling.

That’s because stories activate the human brain.

There are countless types of information available to us – from spreadsheets to photographs – but it’s stories that help us understand, care, connect, and act.

Author Tahir Shah put it this way: “Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”

It’s true: stories are not unlike money: a medium through which we exchange value.

For fundraisers, stories are especially critical. Charitable giving is primarily an emotional act, and repeated studies and tests have shown that when we introduce logical and transactional ideas into fundraising, we drive down response.

That leaves us with stories to make our point.

Which is not a bad thing. After all, stories are the most effective tool in the entire human communications toolbox.

But it’s possible to get stories wrong.

It’s possible, to tell a story in a way that drains it of its motivational power. Or to focus the story in a way that misdirects it into areas that don’t move donors to action.

Here are three super-common temptations that cause fundraisers to tell stories in ineffective ways. I know they are super-common for two reasons:

  1. I constantly see them in fundraising that I encounter.
  2. I frequently fall prey to them in my own fundraising.

Awareness is half the battle. I hope that by pointing out these temptations I can help you see yourself straying when you start to stray. Because you will stray. You will make these mistakes. Everyone does!

Temptation #1: Bragging

There’s a common assumption that if we can just show donors how amazing our organization is, they’ll be moved to give. After all, everyone wants to go with a winner, right? And your organization really is awesome, right?

That’s not how it works in fundraising.

Because donors don’t give to fund your organization. They give to make good things happen. They give specifically to you because they believe you’ll do a good job of making those good things happen.  When you list the attributes of your greatness, you miss the point – the donor’s point. Like this:

BRAGGING: We’ve been working on Skid Row since 1932, longer than any other social service provider. We’ve built state-of-the-art facilities, and our staff are the best-trained and most-advanced professionals in the community, bar none!

The facts in this bragging are not bad things. Longevity in the community, great facilities, excellent staff. All important.

But when you list them, assuming donors will connect the dots between good facts and their goal of making good things happen, you are off target. Way off.

You need to make it clear why those things matter to the donor. Like this:

FUNDRAISING: People like you have been helping the lost and hurting of Skid Row through us since 1932. Thanks to generous friends like you, our new building is roomy and efficient – specifically designed to help as many people as possible. We’ll stretch every dollar you give so you help the greatest number of people in the most life-transforming way.

Temptation #2: Educating

Another assumption behind a lot of fundraising goes like this: “If people just understood our cause and/or our work, they’d give for sure!” I mean, the facts are on your side! Your cause is incredibly important, and your work is engineered to make a maximum difference.

But it’s not a matter of knowledge. Presenting the facts – even doing it in an interesting way – doesn’t address the reasons people give. Like this:

You might not know this, but the typical homeless person in our area is not the bearded elderly man who just needs a hot meal. Forget that stereotype! Less than 10% of our clients are over the age of sixty.

Far more typical is the young mother with a couple of children in tow.

That makes a point. Even an important point. But it’s not the information your donors are looking for. They need a story that touches their heart, not important facts. You need to approach them with a story:

Bill shows up at our soup kitchen almost every day.  At age 72, he’s usually the oldest person there. He sits quietly as the families gather noisily for dinner. He smiles while the many kids run around him. It’s his family.

And your gift makes it possible.

Temptation #3: Arguing

There are very good reasons for people to give to your organization. In a debate between “donate” and “don’t donate,” donate would win hands down.

But fundraising isn’t a debate. It’s not driven by superior facts. It’s driven by human connection. Here’s what I mean:

On any given night, there are more than 5,000 homeless people in our community. And the problem is getting worse. As the price of housing goes up, more and more people are losing their homes. Estimates are that the daily homeless census a year from now will be over 6,000.

Nope. True, cogent, and clear. But it’s the wrong stuff. Tell a story:

Frank lives under a bridge.

Let me tell you a painful secret about these two examples:

I wrote both. The second example (the start of a story) is the “before” in a real project. The first example (the pile of facts) is the “after” – written under duress after a client objected to the fact that we weren’t “logically making the case” for their excellent program. (I tell you this to exonerate myself from that paragraph, but also because this kind of thing happens. Even when you get it right the first time, others may want to get it wrong. That’s life in fundraising.)

There’s another way of thinking about

A different way of looking at it: Goofus and Gallant fundraising stories

We’ve looked at some of the things your fundraising stories shouldn’t be. But what should they be?

Here’s a framework that might help. First, I have to introduce you to Goofus and Gallant.

Have you heard of them? They’re cartoon brothers who represent the Dark Side of the human heart (Goofus) and the Good Side (Gallant). I met them in the dentist’s waiting room of my childhood, which invariably stocked the children’s magazine Highlights for Children – which still exists, and still includes “Goofus and Gallant.”

Goofus has messy hair and a wicked grin. He’s impulsive, rude, and disobedient. Gallant is neatly combed and always has a bland smile that matches his good manners, thoughtfulness, and common sense. Goofus always screws up. Gallant does everything right. They’re shown side-by-side in similar situations to illustrate good and bad behavior. (Honestly, I don’t think any kid actually likes Gallant.)

I like to pretend Goofus and Gallant grew up to become fundraising copywriters. They’d personify two common fundraising approaches:

Goofus Style Fundraising

Goofus focuses on a problem. With a lot of energy. Something like this:

It started with a sore bump on Abdul’s foot. Not much more than a pimple. One night Abdul woke up screaming. His foot felt like it was on fire. His sore, now large and red, had something that looked like the end of a spaghetti noodle poking out, twitching back and forth. He had a guinea worm—a waterborne parasite that can grow up to four feet long inside the human body.

And that meant he now faced about six weeks of searing pain while a visiting nurse extracted the worm, twisting it inch by inch onto a small stick.

Vivid, painful, pulling no punches.

Fundraising like that usually gets strong results. But it has a downside: It tends to lead to weak donor retention! The theory is that while it’s good at activating donors, it’s not so good at building relationships. Donors give and give, but things just stay bad.

Gallant Style Fundraising

Gallant goes at it differently. He focuses on solutions, good news, and progress. Something like this:

Well-tended fields stretch out in all directions, dotted with hard-working farmers. Children shout and laugh while playing soccer outside the well-attended school.

The village is more prosperous than ever, thanks in no small part to the fact that guinea worms no longer exist. People are working, learning, and playing—not suffering the painful infestation and aftermath.

You might think I’m going to tell you that this approach has the opposite impact to Goofus Style – that it gets weak results but strong donor retention.

That’s not what happens. If it did, Gallant Style would be preferable. But it usually gives weak results up front, followed by weak donor retention! It’s possible this message makes would-be donors feel good, but it doesn’t move them to action. They are less likely to give. And there’s only one thing that drives up donor retention: giving! Feeling good doesn’t move the needle.

There’s a place for Gallant’s approach, and that’s in thank-you messages and report-back communications, like newsletters. But not when your primary goal is to raise funds.

Whole-Hearted Fundraising Style

It combines the different strengths of Goofus and Gallant: Honest about the bad news you want donors to address … but hopeful about change that’s in store when they do.

You start like Goofus. Not afraid of sharing bad news and making it vivid.

Then you pivot to Gallant. Show that there is hope, that donors can help change the situation.

Something like this:

When you give, people like Abdul will be freed from the threat of guinea worm. They’ll be able to drink the water, knowing it will not cause them months of searing pain.  It’s a change that will really transform life in the entire community.

When your fundraising story goes like that, you will likely see strong results and good donor retention!

This material is excerpted from the Moceanic online course, “Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling,” available only to members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

Want to know more about storytelling and other ways to make your fundraising connect with donors? Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and be the first to know when the doors are open to new members.

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Author

  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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